Summary: ABC 5 News Cleveland highlights how retired Marine Nigel McCourry overcame treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after receiving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in a MAPS-sponsored study. McCourry speaks about the positive lasting effects of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and MAPS Founder Rick Doblin explains how MDMA may help improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy for PTSD. "My good feelings came after the sessions were over, when I was able to experience some of the relief from these symptoms that have been plaguing me for a better part of a decade," explains McCourry.
This article and its accompanying video originally appeared here.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – or PTSD – will affect an estimated 8 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. It can occur after the trauma of rape, physical attack or abuse — and it cuts deeply into veterans of war.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts about 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War vets, 11 percent of veterans of the Afghanistan war and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.
It’s a leading factor in suicides among veterans – frequently estimated at 22 every single day.
Nigel McCourry knows what a nightmare living with PTSD can be. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2003, and was deployed to Iraq, where he served in some of the most hostile areas.
Two months into his deployment, an IED exploded next to his vehicle. “I just remember the concussive force from that blast. It knocked me out for a minute or two. When I came to, all of the vehicles around me were just in chaos.” He said he was lucky to survive.
After that event, Nigel said he felt something in him change, and described having inappropriate reactions to different situations. When he got out of the Marines in 2005, he came home. And brought the war with him.
“There is a switch that got turned on in combat, and when I came back that switch, that survival mechanism, was still on.”
He thought it would go away by itself. But years passed, and his symptoms continued to worsen. “I was going through day-to-day life with the underlying sense that I was still in combat. And that really disrupted relationships with my family, with friends. It made going out in public places really difficult. I started avoiding crowds.”
And sometimes, Nigel said, he couldn’t leave his home for days at a time.
University Hospitals psychiatrist Joseph Calabrese is one of the country’s leading experts on PTSD. It is difficult to treat, he said, in part because sufferers almost never have only PTSD.
“It’s essential that for people who present with PTSD that we look for these other illnesses: depression, substance abuse, generalized anxiety.” Psychotherapy is a key component of treatment, but Calabrese said current FDA-approved medications for PTSD don’t work very well. “The severity of it will improve somewhat. But the honest answer is that we don’t make these illnesses go away quickly.”
Nigel admits that his PTSD was complicated by depression, alcohol abuse and anxiety. “I had all three of those. I was using alcohol to self-medicate. For six or seven years, I woke up about every morning with a hangover.”
He was finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and prescribed medications that he said made things even worse. “The side effects would make it so I could barely function in my day-to-day life.”
Like many other vets, Nigel began having suicidal thoughts. It was then, in 2011, that he learned about an unusual study happening in South Carolina. Charleston psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer was enrolling patients with PTSD in a study to test the efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. “And I thought about it for a few days and said, what do I have to lose?”
Though MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is commonly referred to as “ecstasy” or “Molly,” it’s important to note that the MDMA used for the research bears little resemblance to the street drugs. Those drugs can have dangerous adulterants in them, and usually little to no MDMA. People have died after taking MDMA recreationally.
Nigel qualified for the study, and went through five day-long therapy sessions, assisted by varying amounts of MDMA.
For Nigel, the results were dramatic. “It was almost night and day,” he said, describing how at one point he had a memory of himself in the early phase of being a Marine, and how he perceived the world then.
He said he was able to contrast that with how he’d been perceiving things with PTSD. “It was almost like getting an aerial view of a terrain, versus being down on the ground and not really having any idea what’s going on.”
“After that first session, the sleep problems I’d been experiencing since Iraq went away. I’ve not had any significant sleep problems since that very first session.”
There is a growing body of research on the use of MDMA to treat PTSD. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is a non-profit organization that funds studies into the use of MDMA and other substances to treat a variety of disorders.
Mithoefer is a principal investigator for the studies. MAPS is in the midst of a $20 million project to make MDMA an FDA-approved prescription drug within the next six years. All of their funding comes from private donations.
But the treatment for PTSD is not just the drug. MAPS founder Rick Doblin emphasized “our approach is MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Themain reason it works is the psychotherapy, not just because we’re giving patients MDMA. The MDMA helps the psychotherapy be substantially and fundamentally more effective.”
Doblin says it does so by reducing the fear in the brain, promoting feelings of connectedness and trust, and helping patients put their traumatic experiences into context, and into the past.
By the end of this summer, about 90 people will have been treated for PTSD with MDMA in studies in the U.S., Israel, Switzerland, Canada and Spain. In initial results published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, after having MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, 83 percent of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD.
Calabrese said the information from these studies of MDMA and other substances in a therapeutic setting is helpful in understanding what causes PTSD.
“The fact that these substances make PTSD symptoms go away informs the cause of the illness. But it’s not ready for prime time.”
Calabrese also said PTSD is not something that just goes away. “Is it like pneumonia, where you treat it and three to four weeks later it’s gone and doesn’t come back? The answer would be no. It’s not like that. It’s a serious, chronic illness.”
The results of the MAPS studies are encouraging enough, however, to draw the interest of the federal government. Doblin said, “For 25 years we’ve been trying to get them interested in this research. Politically there was resistance, in part because of the drug war, but now we’re working in collaboration with the Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD.” And in March, the DEA gave the green light to research on treating anxiety in patients with life-threatening illness.
The willingness of veterans who’ve participated in the study to talk publicly about their experience is also making a difference. And now there’s a documentary film — MDMA The Movie — in the works about the drug’s history in pharmacolo
gy, dangers as a street drug, and potential for therapeutic applications.
Doblin said concerns about risks are valid. “But I think that in general, when these drugs are administered in a clinical setting, that they’re remarkably safe.”
Nigel explained that using MDMA in a therapeutic setting was not like being “high” and that the experience was draining. He said, “My good feelings came after the sessions were over and I was able to experience the relief from these symptoms that had been plaguing me for the better part of a decade.”
Having been through the war – in Iraq and then at home – Nigel hopes that eventually other veterans with PTSD will be able to experience the same healing he has from this unconventional therapy that, he believes, saved his life.